Education, Education, Education Part 2
So what’s it like for a non-Latvian speaker working in a Latvian state school, I hear you ask. Challenging to say the least. First and foremost, most of my colleagues don’t speak English so staff meeting are very interesting. Secondly all information is, as you might expect, in the Latvian language, so simple things, like finding out when I return to school in the New Year presents all kind of problems.
All the computer systems including the school management system, Windows and Office are all in Latvian. Simple jobs, that in the UK I could logically work out how to do, now take what seems a lifetime to complete. At times, I feel so useless and very isolated. Were it not for the positive feedback I get about my lessons I might be reconsidering my position. The vast majority of students are great and really seem to appreciate the opportunity of having a native English speaker as their teacher.
Before I start to describe the differences between the UK and Latvian education systems I would just like to say a few words about my students. What an amazingly talented group of young people they are, I feel privileged to teach them. I have attended two school concerts this semester and I am just amazed at the high standard of musical competence among the student population. I taught in three schools in the UK, all much bigger than the 250 (approx.) students at our school. I don’t think it would have been possible for any of the schools to match the quality the students here deliver. I suspect this high standard is repeated throughout Latvia, and is largely due to cultural differences and the Latvian passion for music, song and dance. Long may it live.
So, to the differences between the two education systems I’ve observed. Bear in mind that there is not much difference in the relative achievements of students in the UK and Latvia. I believe that according to the OECD the UK is in the top 30 countries for educational achievement and Latvia in the top 40. What should be worrying for both countries is that Estonia and Finland, with populations of 1.3m and 5.4m respectively are in the top 5 countries.
The system in Latvia, like the UK is non-selective, comprehensive and co-educational. However unlike the UK where children start school in the year in which they attain the age of 5 (far too young in my opinion), in Latvia children don’t start school until the age of 7 and complete what is termed a ‘basic education’ at the age of 16. This basic education may be extended until the age of 18, presumably if students fail to reach the required standard. Unlike the UK where GCSE certificates are issued for each subject on an A* – G basis, in Latvia students receive a Certificate of basic education (apliecība) with a transcript reflecting the grade (1 – 10) achieved for each subject. After completing their basic education there are 3 options available to students, get a job, vocational education (arodskola) or General secondary education (vidusskola – the more academic route). I have no experience of arodskola so I can make no further comments. General secondary education lasts 3 years through klases 10,11 and 12 where students follow a course similar to the IB. Students leave vidusskola at the age of 19, and then, to University.
Which is the better system? Difficult to evaluate so I’ll sit on the fence. But I do like the idea of not starting school until the age of 7. Seems to be a common idea in many Baltic, Scandinavian and East European countries.
The curriculum in Latvia is very broad and I mean very broad. Students during the 9 year basic education period can study as many as 20 subjects; no options to narrow the curriculum to 9 or 10 subjects as in the UK. When students move onto secondary education it doesn’t get much better with 15/16 subjects being studied compared with 3 or 4 in the UK. Remember that all subjects are graded. This puts a huge work load on the students and to survive they have to wisely manage their time. This is normally done by cleverly choosing which pieces of work to complete. The school management system, e-klase, is used to record grades achieved for tests and assessed homework or classwork and there must be a minimum of three grades recorded per semester. Many students will only complete work if they know that a piece of work is going to be graded and entered on e-klase. The reporting to parents is a grade for each subject which is calculated by averaging the grades on e-klase. Therefore reinforcing the need to obtain high grades for only e-klase assessed work.
I believe that the UK curriculum is too narrow but the Latvian far too broad and limits the ability of students to achieve excellence in comparison to other countries. Implementing changes to narrow the curriculum could be difficult, as it would likely result in some subjects not being chosen by students and raise the possibility of some redundancies. The other possibility would be to merge schools and create bigger schools, thus increasing the possibility of offering a wide range of subjects. Whether there is the political will to make radical changes I don’t know. What I do know is that if no changes are made then the outcomes for students will not change. I suspect there are some conspiracy theorists who probably believe that the government deliberately does nothing so that young people don’t have time to become politically active and demand changes to how the government runs the country. I tend to think that it is just a lack of political will or competency to make tough decisions.
The Typical School Day and Year
I can’t speak about all schools but where I teach lessons start at 8.20 am and all lessons last for 40 minutes, with a 10-minute gap between lessons. Lunch is from 1.15 until 1.45. There are no other breaks. The number of lessons per day depends on students age; 20 at grade one (age 7), 29 at grade five (11), 34 at grade nine (15) and 36 at grade twelve (18). Comparing the 36 lessons per week (24 hrs) at grade 12 to the 15 hrs per week for a typical ‘A’ Level student in the UK and you can see why students constantly complain about work load. For my Latvian readers, UK students typically start school at 8.45 with form time and lessons will start at 9.10. The length of lessons is decided by the school but usually there would be 5 or 6 lessons per day, each lesson 60 or 50 minutes duration. There are no official breaks between lessons but for a 6 lesson day there would be a 20 minute break between lessons 2 and 3 and then a 45 minute lunch break between lessons 4 and 5. I think I prefer the design of the UK school day as it allows more time for collaboration with colleagues, something I feel appears to be missing in the Latvian system.
There are form teachers but there is no morning or afternoon registration and no form time before lessons start. In Latvia there appears to be no concept of ‘in loco parentis’ – in place of a parent and students appear free to come and go as they please if they have no lessons.
The regular school year (excluding examination periods at grades nine and twelve) lasts 36 weeks, from the beginning of September through to the end of May; 1 week holiday in October, 2 weeks at Christmas and 1 week at Easter. Compare that to the UK where the school year starts at the same time but continues to the middle of July with 1 wk holiday in October, Feb and May and 2 weeks at Christmas and Easter. I do like the idea of having 3 months off in the summer but I’m not sure if I’m going to enjoy the next semester with only having 1 week break in 5 months. I’m also not sure if it is the students’ educational best interests to have 3 months off in the summer.
I think this post is getting too long. I’m going to stop now and save the rest for part 3.
I look forward to hearing others’ views of the Latvian educational system.
I hadn’t really realised how many lessons Latvian children have, but I think it is an outmoded way to deliver education. I also think that amalgamating schools is not the way to go. It is something I have been discussing with some academics this week. The problem is that when you take the school out of a community, you can take the heart out of it and make it more difficult for small communities to retain their young families. Schools could be kept open and use teachers as supervisors to ensure children complete work, work set remotely through a regional association of schools. That doesn’t mean that teachers are any less qualified, but that other teachers supplement the supervisors own teaching in a small school.
There could be modules where older students gather together in a larger school with more resources, for example a chemistry week where students do experiments. That gives older students more contact and interaction with other students from different villages/towns around the region. Also it is worth bearing in mind that Finland is moving towards a thematic, student lead education that should prove interesting. We need students who know and want to learn, not just imparting knowledge to them that could equally be googled anyway.
Lastly for this perhaps overly long response 🙂 I don’t think that three months is too long and the children do not necessarily forget what they have learnt, but have time to assimilate that learning and internalise it. Time to think and freedom to explore are far more important than trying to stuff students heads with knowledge. So there’s my penn’o’worth 🙂
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Hi Joanna, it’s a very valid point you make about amalgamating schools and the way it would effect communities. What concerns me is that I don’t hear any debate going on in the schools about how to raise standards.
Thanks for the enjoyable read – three points:
Although what is called ‘school’ starts at age 7, attendance at Pre-School (Nursery, Kindergarden, Bernu Darzs) is obligatory from age 5, and is probably similar to the UK’s infant classes that I attended.
Regarding lack of debate about raising standards, speak to your Head Teacher. Her doctorate was on this very topic (although restricted to improving standards in the t4eaching of Mathematics), and encouraging debate about improving standards is the primary motivation behind pretty much everything she does!
Regarding amalgamating schools – there continues to be a lot of debate on this topic, with the closure of small countryside schools likely in the net few years.
Hi John, it’s probably my Latvian shortcoming which prevent me being part of the discussion. I think the point I was trying to make, but obviously not very well is that in the UK almost every waking minute for every teacher is how do we raise standards. Day by day teachers receive emails and memos about raising standards from the school leadership team. It is all consuming. It even is debated in the national press on a regular basis. In comparison in Latvia the debate appears muted. It is rare if the media report upon the discussion that is taking place. The only discussion I have heard is about changing the duration of school holidays. If the debate is widespread then I apologise. Raising standards in Latvia is only going to happen if changes take place at a national level. Yes, good leadership at a local level will have an impact, but significant improvement will only happen when the government really prioritises education, as Estonia did.
I could say a lot more and maybe I will, someday, but for now a few points regarding what You wrote:
1. The three months is excessive and literally makes even the best pupils forget what was taught previously. And regarding what Joanna said, internalization takes, I have heard, four days, not three months. But given how little sunlight we get, the only reasonable solution would be to start the school year around mid-August, also extending the school year till early July. Either of which but especially the former may cause violent riots, if attempted (ask Your wife, if You wonder why), so there’s literally no political will to change anything. if anything, politicians would sooner get rid of the autumn and spring breaks, than extend the summer break beyond summer solstice.
2. I have been bringing it up for years now, wherever and whenever I can that we need to have less subjects, unfortunately even highly educated people with doctor degrees seem to be too stupid to learn from themselves, or more likely unwilling to admit that their schooling years have been a huge waste of time. For example, everyone thinks that children must have well rounded education just because, yet none of these spherically educated adults remember even basic science facts, when questioned about them. It just makes me so mad that they don’t remember a thing they were taught but they still think that their children should also go through the same and more, “because how can you be an adult without knowing chemistry/physics/history/”? And then as a final defence they claim that they would have needed that knowledge, had they decided to study that major. And in their ignorance they will never recognize that throughout the world, for example, physics to undergraduates is always taught from scratch and with terrible amount of advanced mathematics, because that is simply how real physicists roll. “Who needs all those ugly but mathematically simple equations when a lot of the time you can get what you need by deriving and integrating the bejesus out of essentially common knowledge?” is the leading thought there. And any other subject will also start from scratch, because education for everyone means also education for no one. Sorry for ranting this much but it just drives me both crazy and sad, seeing how hopeless it is, when even the best academicians are this dense.
3. As for responsibility over children, I am not a lawyer but while pupils are on school premises the headmaster is responsible for them and, if something happens while they should have been in your class, the headmaster will shove that responsibility on to You. Probably. I doubt there are any legal precedents but You can find the appropriate laws in English at http://likumi.lv/ , the official website for Latvian Law. Just don’t be very surprised when in true Latvian sense of law and social order the law does not match with reality. For example, children should not be out in public without adult supervision until the age of 12 or even 14, yet, I was commuting on my own from kindergarten since, say, age of 6? And just as a fun side note, my commute included either walking through a forest with paedophile sighting, past a morgue and then taking the right bus, which I sometimes got wrong and had to walk home some 5 kilometres. Or walking through a TV antenna’s seclusion zone with even less people than the forest/morgue and then take a bus, which at least was guaranteed to get me the right direction. Such is life in Latvia, and, yes, I, too, sometimes wonder how the heck I survived all that.
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Love your blog! Our family is contemplating moving to Latvia and as a Latvian expat myself I would be very keen to find out what your Latvian other half thinks of the move back?
I went to a Latvian school to study for 2 years. I was 9-11 at the time. Which meant i was in years 3-4. In Latvia, most schools have a Sakumskola and Pamatskola. Sakumskola is years 1-4 and pamatskola is years 5-9. I also had only 6 lessons a day. A 10 minute break between each and a 25 minute lunch. We would start school from 8.30 to 2 or sometimes even 1.
I have a question. I am a student in latvia and I have been given an assignment to compare the Latvian language with a different one. i would like to compare it with english, but i dont know exactly how i would compare them. I would like to ask that you reply with a quick summary of a comparison please. Thank you!
Well,at least they are more educated than many and I mean many,many young people in UK! At least they know the world map, when British students haven’t got a slightest clue ! Latvian education is on very high level! We don’t go to school to waste time or wear as shorter skirt as possible so all “mother nature” is flashing out! We respect older people and our teachers … in UK it’s like an “alienated subject”. … So,yeah! One of many, many examples why Latvians actually know how to read or write … as You are British Yourself You must be fully aware how tragic situation is in UK!
I would agree that the state of the English Education system isn’t great but neiher are the results being produced by the Latvian system. If you look at the OECD comparison of education systems. Latvia from memory is ranked in the low 30’s, UK in the low 20’s, Estonia 3rd and Finland top. Clearly the UK and Latvia have much to do to catch up
Hi. I’ve just discovered your blog. I’m involved in coming to Riga each year to deliver some teacher training. I wondered if you have any knowledge of the Latvian equivalent of teacher standards for trainees – if so, whether they are in line or different from those in the UK? Thanks
Hi Penny, I’m really sorry for not replying to you sooner but for various reasons I stopped posting to the blog. If you still need an answer to your question. Let me know.
As someone who grew up in Latvia, the education system is horrible. Those hours you listed don’t include homework in all those 18 subjects I had in high school. I was in school from 8 till 17 almost every workday, and then had about 3-4h of homework to do for the next day. I remember almost getting into depression during winter months, I was definitely overworked.
After high school, I studied a bit in university in Latvia but chose to drop out and moved to Denmark. So I took 2 year AP degree in denmark (level 5 of higher education I think), and it is like the extreme opposite, so layed back and so much free time. Maybe too much, most international students became very lazy here.
But the main issue with Latvia education for me, it is extremely hard to get those high grades in high school, and even if you have really good grades, they still compete very low with other countries, like Denmark..where it is 100 times easier to get good grades.
It just feels like the education was set up for factory workers and had no interest in creating future students.
Hi Patricija, I’m really sorry for the long delay in replying to your comment. After writing the posts that you can see many of my experiences started to repeat themselves and I found it increasingly difficult to write posts which didn’t appear to be critical of Latvia. So I stopped writing. I do however agree with everything you have written. Latvia is currently in the lower 38th place (I think) in the OECD education leagues tables and has shown no improvement in the last 10 yrs. Unfortunately I haven’t seen anything which suggests there will be changes in the next 10 yrs